Editor’s note: This is the first in a five-part special series examining the disappearance and murders of hundreds of First Nations girls and women in Canada. Part one highlights sex trafficking of children and the failure of police and the Canadian government to fully investigate these crimes.
VANCOUVER, British Columbia—Cherri was 11 years old the first time she was bought and sold.
Alone on the streets of Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, abruptly abandoned by her new “boyfriend,” she was accosted by an older man who said he’d bought her, and insisted she now belonged to him.
Shocked by how this could happen, she resisted and tried to flee. But following a severe beating, she relented and went with the man, who took her to a seedy hotel where she was kept for weeks being indoctrinated into the lifestyle of a child prostitute.
Cherri was told she’d have to earn her keep, and soon became part of his “stable” of children forced into sexual slavery by a savvy racket of pimps and pedophiles who prey on vulnerable young girls with nowhere to go.
Taken from her family as a baby, she’d spent most of her youth bouncing around more than 10 foster homes by the time she fled the sexual abuse she endured under state-sponsored foster care.
So she ran away, thinking there had to be something better.
In downtown Vancouver, she met a charming young man who befriended her and acted like a “boyfriend” for a week, buying her meals, a few clothes, jewelry and makeup. He showed her around Vancouver’s downtown, pointing out the women’s resource center and local soup kitchen where she could get a meal. Then he abandoned her.
That’s when the pimp showed up. That was no accident—it’s all part of a larger scheme to find vulnerable, defenseless youth stuck in limbo between homelessness and the long road home, according to the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network, an organization working on the frontlines to help exploited girls and women.
The girls—ranging in age from 11 to 17—are routinely introduced to crack cocaine or heroine, and fed a steady diet of alcohol to “loosen them up” and numb them from the horrific experiences they are forced to endure.
The goal is to quickly get them hooked on drugs so soon they are working to support their drug dependency, making it harder for them to escape.
At a time when most girls are in middle school, Cherri was turned out to work the “kiddy stroll,” an area on Franklin Avenue near the waterfront where anyone can buy sex from a child.
“At first they seem like they might be nice to you,” she said. “But then the sex starts and they get mean, and do things to hurt you. I wonder if they have daughters at home, and if they would want them treated this way. Or do they just want to do these things to me?”
To make matters worse, the men who are buying children include people one would not normally suspect—like Judge David Ramsay, who pled guilty in 2006 to charges of procurement and sexual assault on four First Nations girls between the ages of 12 and 16.
All of the girls assaulted had appeared before him in youth or family court, and although a police investigation was initiated in 1999, he was not removed from the bench until 2002, three years after the investigation began.
Gina, another girl forced into sex work, said, “During my time on the street I was physically and sexually abused so many times I couldn’t count if I tried, sometimes with knives and guns. I remember hearing about women that were going missing or were found dead when they were “working” the street. I hate to call it working—it wasn’t a job—men were paying to violate me.”
She said she feared men who wanted to take her out of city limits and refused to go. “If I did, I would be dead too. My friends never had the chance to tell their story because they were found dead in places like the Pickton farm. I cry for them. I even helped carve a memorial (totem) pole for those that disappeared or were found dead. Our sisters are still going missing all the time.”
Robert William Pickton, of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia is a pig farmer and serial killer who confessed to the murders of 49 women. He was charged in the deaths of 20, but only convicted of the second-degree murders of six women in 2007.
At least six of his victims were First Nations women, some whose bodies were never found because he fed many of his victims to his pigs. Soil samples later revealed DNA evidence of some of the murdered women.
While many of the girls on the streets disappear or are found murdered, many missing women and girls had no links to prostitution—they were simply hitchhiking or went out for an evening and never came home, said Angela MacDougall, executive director of Battered Women’s Support Services in Vancouver.
MacDougall is a leader in the fight to demand that police and government officials fully investigate and prevent the widespread violence against First Nations women and girls.
As of March 2010, more than 580 Native women and girls have been murdered or disappeared throughout Canada, according to the Native Women’s Association of Canada, which conducted a five-year study to collect evidence that documented issues of violence that women, families and communities had been pointing to for nearly two decades.
“That number came from just one study, but we know it’s much higher. More than 2,900 people signed petitions during last year’s March4Justice across Canada looking for their daughters, sisters, mothers, and aunties,” said MacDougall.
Laura Holland from the Aboriginal Women’s Action Network agrees. “The study was just the tip of the iceberg because many cases have not been documented. For years, no one kept track of what happens to aboriginal women—they don’t seem to care,” she said about the police and provincial social service agencies.
Though Native families have reported relatives missing for the last 20 years, only recently did Vancouver police organize a task force to look into the high number of missing women.
limited police cooperation only happened recently after thousands of people organized marches for several years in downtown Vancouver on Valentine’s Day to bring attention to the lack of response from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and government agencies.
Gladys Radek, an organizer of the March4Justice across Canada, was trying to find her missing niece Tamara Chipman when she first became aware of how many families were affected. Chipman was last seen hitchhiking on Highway 16 in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and was reported missing in December 2005.
Radek said there are currently more than 3,000 missing women in Canada, 40 percent of whom are of aboriginal descent.
Given the fact that First Nations people as a whole only make up three percent of Canada’s population, Radek was alarmed and created the walk to raise awareness of the missing and murdered women and children, and to educate communities about the violence against women.
Now in its fourth year, the 2010 Walk4Justice is currently underway from British Columbia to Manitoba.
In September 2008, Radek and supporters presented more than 2,900 names to Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa, Ontario and demanded that public inquiry be held.
She and an alliance of other organizations are demanding attention be paid to the lack of full investigations by the police and the fact that perpetrators remain unpunished.
Part two of this series explores the links between widespread racism, oppression and abuse in Canada’s residential schools, the “60s scoop” that placed thousands of Native youth into foster care, and the systemic social and economic conditions that contribute to this tragic situation.
Part 3: Turning Anger into Action
Valerie Taliman, Navajo, is president of Three Sisters Media, which offers publishing, social media and public relations services. She is also an award-winning journalist specializing in environmental, social justice and human rights issues. She is based in Albuquerque, N.M. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.